Channeling memory lane

Milky and Soupy and Sonny, oh my! Exactly how much television nostalgia can one city stand?

You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that our Detroit TV heritage is deemed so rich and fascinating as to have inspired not one, but two retrospective books on the subject. The latest, TV Land — Detroit (University of Michigan Press, $22.95), compiled by first-time author and local TV and radio producer Gordon Castelnero, arrives on bookshelves this month. The other, From Soupy to Nuts! A History of Detroit Television (Momentum Books, $24.95) by Tim Kiska, has been around since last year.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that Kiska is a friend of mine. We covered the tiny tube together for The Detroit News in the '90s, and I was in the audience at Wayne State University earlier this month when he received his 2006 Journalist of the Year award from Wayne State University's journalism department. That disclosure made, anyone who believes I cannot possibly compare these two works objectively should stop reading now. Because, objectively speaking, while both compilations have their flaws, From Soupy to Nuts! is the infinitely better compilation.

Not that we need two such remembrances of our black-and-white past, you understand. Only those natives old enough to remember rabbit ears and actually getting up to change channels can truly relish these video memories, like those of WWJ-TV, now WDIV-TV (Channel 4), which led the way as Michigan's first TV station in 1947.

To many Detroiters today, local legends like Rita Bell, Bill Kennedy and Jac LeGoff are little more than names on a page and Bill Bonds is best known as a furniture pitchman. So unless "Detroit television historian" tops the list of your favorite pursuits, either book is something of an acquired taste.

That said, one has to admire Castelnero's passion for the task. He interviewed more than 100 people in and around the medium, and is meticulous in his detail. I learned, for example, that Soupy Sales once lived in a duplex on Schaefer, and Clare Cummings, the man who became Milky the Clown, worked as an automobile paint salesman for Dupont. For all its minutiae, however, TV Land — Detroit prompts as many questions as it answers.

For example, where is the index? How can you have a book with this many names, faces and references without a directory to help locate them?

My biggest problem with TV Land — Detroit, though, is its unidentified co-conspirators. Frequently throughout the book, Castelnero quotes numerous "Detroit TV fans" to embellish the narrative about former local shows and personalities, but the sources are given no context or explanation for their selection; they just appear. I'm sure Larry Dlusky and Peggy Tibbits are fine people, but I have no idea what qualifies them to speak as references for the golden age of Detroit television any more than my Aunt Fannie. Castelnero often strings a series of such quotes together as a substitute for actually writing the book, making TV Land something of an oral history from unknown voices.

From Soupy to Nuts!, conversely, relies almost entirely on Kiska's crisp, exhaustive reportage; here's a book that could actually stand to have a few more anecdotes and individual recollections. And while his strict organizational style might seem a bit stiff at first (Kiska employs broad chapter headings like "News," "Hosts and Programs" and "Horror," then lists and discusses everyone under those headings in alphabetical order), there's an index, making it more user-friendly. Kiska is a writer by trade, making this the more interesting and engaging read.

The bittersweet reality both books acknowledge is that local television isn't "local" anymore. Except for the daily newscasts and a handful of public affairs programs, the shows we see here are manufactured somewhere else, and they're the same shows people watch in Atlanta, Des Moines, Iowa, and Walla Walla, Wash. We've lost another layer of our Detroit identity, and one we'll never recapture. If you want to possess a keepsake from that bygone era, however, I'd say go Nuts!

Jim McFarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Jim McFarlin

Jim McFarlin, former media and entertainment critic for the Metro Times and The Detroit News, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People, USA Today, Black Enterprise, HOUR Detroit, and many other publications. His latest book, The Booster, about the decline and fall of U-M’s Fab Five, is...
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